Monday 19 February 2018

'Ireland's skilled workforce will keep multinationals here' - MSD Ireland human health boss


Ger Brennan Picture: Steve Humphreys
Ger Brennan Picture: Steve Humphreys
Samantha McCaughren

Samantha McCaughren

From a young age, Ger Brennan was hell-bent on getting into a career in pharmaceuticals.

Although the Tipperary man, who now heads up the human health division of one of the country's biggest healthcare employers, MSD Ireland, qualified as a nurse, he knew he was destined for a career in the drugs business. But the path was far from smooth.

"I remember when I used to do the drug rounds," he says. "I'd be going through the packages to see if I could get contact details. And I used to write to these guys individually and someone said to me one day 'What have you really done to try and get into this job?'. I said 'As motivation I keep my PFOs'."

"I had over 100 'thank you very much for applying for this position, we have you on file, blah, blah, blah'."

For several years, it was a fruitless pursuit until the model for employing drugs reps in Ireland began to change. "I was going to recruitment agencies but then a company called Innovex came onto the scene and they kind of brought in a new model that was contract reps.

"So, Innovex were bringing in nurses and people who had done science and giving us six-month contracts so that got the door open for me."

Once the door was opened, there was no turning back for Brennan (44).

Working his way up through pharma giants such as Bayer and Wyeth, he joined MSD in 2010, taking on a number of senior international positions. He took over the senior role in Ireland last August. As well as being managing director of the group's human health business in Ireland, Brennan is head of MSD's country council for Ireland which oversees the development of MSD's presence here.

Less than a year into the job, he is overseeing significant investment here, with the group announcing last month that it will invest €40m in its manufacturing facility in Ballydine, Co. Tipperary this year.

It is part of a €75m spend over the last three years to upgrade the site's facilities.

Among the developments being invested in is the installation of a new spray-drying facility at the plant - a technology used in a number of products to increase their solubility and improve how the medicines are absorbed by patients.

It is all part of ensuring Ireland remains a cutting-edge location for the group in an ever-more competitive global pharmaceutical sector.

And in February, MSD announced that it is to expand its clinical trials programme in Ireland, with a particular focus on the latest developments in the treatment of cancer. That saw the company commit up to €25m to Irish-based clinical trials and related R&D activities over the next three years.

"We're here 50 years and we have eight sites," says Brennan. "Why are we still investing in Ireland? You know, one of the strong things I think we come across is the talent in our people in Ireland. Now it would be remiss of me if I didn't mention the tax breaks and the 12.5pc corporate tax, but is that the main driver? I don't think so."

Ireland is a key location in terms of size for the group although it has scaled back operations in some locations. It is about to close a plant in Swords, for example, which employed 570 people. "That's going to shut down in the next couple of weeks," says Brennan. "But I suppose the big thing there, we were able to delay that shutdown by over two years."

Read more: Drug giant MSD's €40m upgrade 'a vote of confidence'

While some operations have wound down, other businesses have expanded, such as the site in Ballydine.

"With 1,800 employees we would be one of the largest operations for MSD globally. And the testament on that is at the end of this month, we have 1,500 MSD executives flying in for a three-day conference in the convention centre.

"You know 50pc of the top 20 MSD products globally are manufactured here in Ireland."

One of the more recent concerns facing the Irish pharma sector has been a pledge by US president Donald Trump to bring drug production back to the US. Brennan believes it is not something to be concerned about.

"I think we've responded very, very quickly to President Trump when he made that narrative," says Brennan. "Our own CEO has had two meetings with the President and he basically gave the commitment to the President that yes, there will be manufacturing and future manufacturing in the US for US drugs."

"Outside of the US we need to have manufacturing for drugs that we actually commercialise in Europe so President Trump wasn't as familiar with the whole supply chain at that time," he adds.

"Is it a concern for me today? Absolutely not. We've just announced the €75m in Ballydine. We have the significant investment we're going to announce over the next couple of months in our other facilities and also Keytruda, which is our leading oncology drug that globally we're manufacturing out of Carlow."

Keytruda, one of MSD's most exciting new drugs, uses the latest in biotechnology to fight cancer. "We have the body acting as the chemotherapy in targeting the cancer cells," says Brennan.

Finding new drugs to fight Alzheimer's is also high on the agenda. "We're all looking for the target, this compound that will actually curtail the progression of the disease. I mean that's going to be a game-changer, whoever can identify that."

The company's large workforce requires a diverse set of skills. "Our medics, our medical advisers, they're all doctors or consultants in very specialised areas. If I look at our commercial organisation here, all the people have basic degrees and higher.

"Then when I get into the manufacturing process, we have very high-skilled labour here, so we've technicians, we have a lot of PhD students, a lot of engineers," says Brennan. "Because when you're dealing with biotechnology, it's a rapid, rapid process so we need to bring in the brightest minds, a lot of people with significant experience. The challenge is keeping them."

Nine of the 10 top pharma firms are in Ireland, so Brennan says it is "extremely competitive".

Wage inflation is "not an issue for us but it's something we do a lot of work on so it doesn't become an issue", he says.

While fears over Trump's statements on pharma production may have been put to one side, Brexit does pose some potential challenges.

"To be fair, people are really not sure what way this is going to look.

"However, supply chain is going to be a challenge for us because we've a centralised pact with the UK - as do many pharmaceutical companies," says Brennan. "So if there's no way where we can put kind of a holding agreement in place to allow us to actually take a step back and say OK, how do we change this ... that to me is probably what would keep me awake at night. That we don't have interruption to our supply chain."

There are opportunities, however. Health Minister Simon Harris is making a serious effort to bring the London-based European Medicines Agency (EMA) to Ireland.

Brennan says it would bring huge benefits to Ireland.

"We would be seen as a major player when it comes to pharmaceuticals. If I look at our footprint from a manufacturing perspective and then you have the EMA on side...I mean we've heard some companies say they would move their organisations to where EMA sits."

However, other countries are fighting hard to win over the agency and there is some scepticism in the industry about Ireland's chances of succeeding. Having taken up his role in August, Brennan is keen to have MSD's voice heard at a government level and has strong views about the future of healthcare in Ireland.

"I suppose one thing that I'm very passionate about is that at MSD Ireland, we don't want just to be seen as a pharmaceutical company in the corner," he says. "This year we set up a policy and government affairs department and that brought in a very strong policy and government affairs leader [former minister of state and Road Safety Authority chair Liz O'Donnell] for us in that space. And the idea is that we can work with government around Stem (science, tech, engineering and maths) so that they will come to us to collaborate rather than you're just going in to discuss bringing new products to the market. It's more about thinking the long term and the more holistic approach," he says.

There has been a lot of discussion about the cost of medicines in Ireland in recent years. Brennan believes it has gone in the right direction.

"I'm very pleased with the new deal," he says of the drugs agreement with the State made last June. "That will save nearly €800m over a four-year agreement."

Another development impacting on production is the shift towards artificial intelligence, automation and augmented reality. However, Brennan does not believe it will have much downside for employment numbers.

"I think on the biotech side it's at a fairly automated process as is, but still requires a level of staffing. For example, in Carlow - which is probably one of the most advanced technology plants - we still have nearly 400 people employed there. While a lot of it is automated, you need to have a lot of quality and control within the process so it won't take it away, no."

However, Brennan does see medicine and patient care changing fast due to technological advancements. "Augmented reality is the new buzzword and we're in that space too."

Curriculum vitae


Ger Brennan


Managing director of MSD human health in Ireland


Dalkey, Dublin


St Mary's Secondary School, Newport, Co Tipperary. Trained as a nurse for children and adults with special needs with the Daughters of Charity

Previous experience

Roles with Bayer and Wyeth.


Partner, Chris.


I'm a big Tipperary GAA supporter and also rugby. We live out in Dalkey and we've a dog, Jack, so I spend a lot of my time walking my dog up Killiney Hill.

Last book

I recently read The Battle by Paul O'Connell and I was really intrigued. It was a constant battle for a guy that was so passionate about sport. How did he get the enjoyment out of it? He set the bar so high each time.

Favourite building

The Flatiron Building in Manhattan.

Business Lessons

Best business advice

You need to ensure you've a very strong team and people that understand their role within that organisation and then you actually empower them to do that job

Most challenging time in business

A European role I took in a commercial operations role. I had a team that didn't really know their purpose but then I had an organisation that didn't see the value of that team either. I had to repurpose the team but I wanted the team to find their value.

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